N.B. Some links in this article are affiliate links, and I may receive a small commission from purchases made off them.
This has been a problem I’ve been encountering on my travels. The general solution we get given when asking how we get a working, local SIM card and mobile number for the country we are going abroad to, is just to get a local SIM card when we get there, and use that in our own phone.
But it’s not always that simple. Many phones are locked, meaning that they’ll only work with SIM cards from the country they were made/issued in, and then only to one network in that country. If you put a foreign SIM card into a locked phone, it won’t work – the phone will not accept a SIM card from any carrier/provider/country other than the one it was originally issued in.
If you go into phone shops in the foreign country you go to, they’ll often say you need to get a local mobile phone, but you could be paying hundreds of dollars/pounds equivalent in local currency for that – what use is that if you’re only staying a week or two?
So what easy, cheap solutions are there to actually get a working local number/SIM in any foreign country you go to, either for a holiday or longer term? How can you do that without paying through the nose for a brand new phone?
Here’s how in 2 simple steps:
- Get a cheap, unlocked multi-carrier burner phone
- Buy a local SIM and use in your unlocked phone.
And that’s really it! If your current phone you use at home is not unlocked (most phones are locked), then you are best off buying a cheap, unlocked second phone and using that with foreign SIM cards.
We’ll give you some options for this, let’s get started.
Preliminary Step – Checking If Your Phone is Locked or Unlocked
To check if a phone is locked or unlocked, dialing *#06# works on most phones in displaying the IMEI (international identification number for your phone). See here for other ways to find the IMEI if stuck.
Note down the IMEI and plug it into a free IMEI checker tool like this one, and it will display a bunch of information about your phone, including whether it’s locked or unlocked.
Most of these IMEI checker tools charge for the info, but the one I’ve linked to is 100% free at the time of writing, so try that one first. If you’re lucky enough to already have an unlocked phone, you can just put a foreign SIM in it and it should work fine – see Step #2 below.
If it’s locked, you need to either pay for a service to unlock it (can be done but some services rip you off for this and/or are unreliable), or just get a cheap unlocked phone to put a foreign SIM card in (that’s what we cover in the rest of this article).
Step #1 – Buy A Cheap Unlocked Burner Phone
If you are lucky enough to already have an unlocked (multi-carrier) phone you can skip to step #2. However, many phones are still locked, meaning they are restricted to one network/carrier in the country they were issued in. To use a foreign SIM, you’ll need either a phone issued in that country, or a fully unlocked phone.
You don’t necessarily need to pay through the nose to get an unlocked (multiple carrier) phone to use when you go abroad. There are budget “burner” phones available that are also “unlocked” or can be used with multiple mobile providers/carriers. One would presume this extends to foreign SIM cards as well as domestic ones – an unlocked phone should be able to accept any SIM card, as long as it’s the correct format (with budget burner phones, you do need older 2G/3G compatible SIM cards).
Here are some good budget unlocked phones to get started with (affiliate links to Amazon):
- MFU A608 Dual SIM Unlocked Phone – Great budget flip phone option, accepts all carriers, basic no nonsense phone you can put a foreign SIM card in and get to work. Great for just calls and texts.
- BLU Z5 GSM Unlocked Phone – Another old style burner phone that isn’t locked to one network and therefore should accept multiple carriers. Very reasonably priced as well. Great for just calls and texts.
- Nokia 225 – A slightly more upmarket unlocked phone, that does allow some minor internet access (apps), but only very basic. Paying a bit more than the first two, but still reasonably priced.
- You can also buy more expensive unlocked smartphones with proper internet functionality, but if you’re going to pay those sorts of prices, you might as well get a new local phone while you’re abroad.
- If you’re going to be traveling around multiple countries, then it may be best to spend more to get a proper unlocked smartphone with internet functionality before you go, and then buy cheap local SIM cards while there to use in each individual country you go to.
There are other decent budget options as well, but the main thing you need is an unlocked phone that can accept SIM cards from any carrier.
Step #2 – Get a Foreign SIM Card
Once you’ve got an unlocked burner phone, you then just need a SIM card from the country you’re in or going to. This will give you a local mobile number that can accept calls/texts from other mobiles in that country. This can be really important for receiving deliveries for example when abroad, as couriers/delivery men often don’t like calling foreign numbers – they’ll only call local phone numbers.
More basically, having a local SIM card and number when in a foreign country (working or on holiday) just lets you send and receive calls and texts relatively cheaply, without getting ripped off with foreign roaming/call fees when phones with SIM cards from different countries are trying to communicate.
You can also get foreign SIM cards online before you go, but you can also get one when you’re in the foreign country. Airports often have kiosks where you can get local SIM cards as soon as you land. Or you can often get them in supermarkets, smaller tech shops, and definitely in phone shops.
If you do get them online, your best bet is usually just to get one for the country you’re going to (eg. Portugal), but you can also get continent wide SIM cards, that give call and data allowances over multiple countries in a particular region (eg. Europe/Asia) for a specific amount of time (usually 30-90 days). These are good if you’re traveling between a few countries, but usually a single SIM card for a single country gives you what you need locally.
If you do get one from a phone store, be ready to potentially show some ID, as it is a requirement in some countries to get a local SIM card.
Here’s some tips on what to ask for when getting a local SIM card abroad:
- Make the shop staff aware of what generation (2G/3G/4G) your burner phone is so they get you the right one.
- While you can get contract deals, your best options for shorter stays are to ask for a pre-paid SIM card, that’s already got some credit on it.
- Staff in foreign phone shops will often be trying to sell you call and internet pre-paid SIM card packages, but if you’re using a really basic burner phone that doesn’t even have internet, you don’t need internet/data. Just ask for calls/text pre-paid SIM card packages if they have them.
- Once you get the SIM card, it’s best to put it in your phone while still in the shop and make sure it works. With unlocked phones, there shouldn’t be a problem, but in case there is, get staff to help you.
Step #3 – Put The Foreign SIM In An Unlocked Phone
Once you’ve got your unlocked phone, and your foreign/local SIM card, you just need to combine the two together! Put the foreign SIM into the phone, and it should accept it no problem, as long as it’s fully unlocked with no carrier restrictions.
Be aware, some phones advertised as “unlocked” still have some caveats in their product descriptions, that they still don’t work with certain domestic carriers (eg. AT&T). But this is usually for US based carriers, and there’s no indication that they don’t work with foreign carriers in Europe or elsewhere.
Usually, when you put a SIM card into an unlocked phone, it just accepts it within several seconds, and with pre-paid SIM cards, the local carrier should come up and you should be good to go making calls/texts with your new local number. However, it’s a good idea to get your SIM from a phone shop, where staff can help you out if there any setup problems when using it for the first time.
Alternative Option – Use An Airalo E-SIM Card (Data Only)
If you’d rather not be bothering with physical SIM cards at all, digital or E-SIM cards are also available that you can pre-purchase for most countries. These are digital SIM cards you install on your phone/tablet, and that act as SIM cards to access mobile internet and other apps like Whatsapp when traveling abroad.
Airalo are a great new provider for this, with E-SIM cards for 200 countries and great value packages – you pay for what you need.
Here are some great benefits of Airalo E-SIM cards:
- Great cheap value Data Only plans starting at just 1 GB and a few dollars (no need to pay for loads of data you won’t need for a short trip. Just buy what you need).
- Almost all countries covered globally.
- Wide range of device compatibility (see here for full list).
- Easy installation and activation in most cases (comprehensive support as well for any problems).
- Easy to top up and buy new E-SIMs as needed.
- No need to get ripped off locally with physical tourist SIM cards when you go somewhere.